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Lisa, to the perplexity of her German-rooted family, graduated from Reed College with a BA in Russian Literature. After attending SRAS's Translation Abroad Program, she went on to accept positions with SRAS and Alinga Consulting Group. Lisa was then promoted within SRAS and is now leading our institutional relations efforts, helping to develop new programs and partnerships. She is also the primary contact during the program selection process, helping students navigate the opportunities they have through SRAS relative to their academic, professional, and personal interests and objectives. She also studied previously at Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg and currently resides in Minneapolis, MN.


SRAS Site Visit to Kyrgyzstan
By Lisa Ellering Horner
Program Consultant, Institutional Relations

The School of Russian and Asian Studies

  Contact Lisa, SRAS's
Institutional Relations Coordinator, to find out 
how SRAS can better 
serve your students.

While Bishkek is a city with industry and culture, the real jewel in Kyrgyzstan is in nature. Any trip there without time in the mountains is really incomplete. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan for site visits to our programs in Bishkek twice before –in February 2010 and October 2011 – but this was the first year I was able to venture out to Kyrgyzstan’s crown jewel, Lake Issyk Kul.

One of our programs, Kyrgyz Summer Adventure, includes a week-long horse trek through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The journey begins with a night at a beach house on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul, about a four-hour drive east of Bishkek. The horse trek experience has been described by past students as one of the most intense experiences of their lives, and nothing less than life-changing.

This year for the first time we created a “soft” version of the trek, so students are able to better pick their intensity level in terms of how far into the mountains to go. We had a record number of students interested in the trek this year, so we divided the horse trek participants into three groups – one group did the “soft” trek, and two groups chose the “hard” trek.

I flew into Bishkek in July 2014 to check in on our programs we have there, update our Orientation Guide and online city guide, and to join five SRAS students and two Kyrgyz guides for this year’s first run of the “hard” trek.

This selfie by SRAS student Paul Quay shows himself, two other students, Lisa, and one of the group's guides enjoying some of the trek's diverse and unpredictable weather.  

We spent 6 nights and 7 days in the mountains. Each day we rode 3-6 hours. We typically got up in the morning about 8 am, and leisurely took camp down while one of our guides prepared breakfast while the other one began getting the horses ready. Breakfast usually consisted of cheese, homemade, delicious bread with either a homemade jam (apricot or raspberry) or Nutella, and either coffee or tea. On day 7 we were also treated to sardines for breakfast as we were using up the rest of our supplies.

After breakfast, we’d fill up our water bottles using the pump filter, pack up all the gear, and mount the horses. We’d typically ride about 1-1.5 hours before a local Kyrgyz shepherd or shepherd’s wife would see us and insist we come in for “tea.” Most of the Kyrgyz people we encountered were staying in the mountains for the summer, and planned to return to their respective surrounding villages in August. Because “tea” usually consisted of the same things we’d just eaten for breakfast, plus a number of dairy products produced from horse milk (including butter, yogurt, and kumis, a drink made from fermented horse’s milk that tastes very similar to kefir) – we began getting used to having a second breakfast every morning.

10013942_768312856554049_8528412527694888728_nA panarama of one the scenes seen by student Jessica Carranza-Knowles on the trek.

We also got used to eating very, very slowly, because the moment anyone would stop eating you’d have the prompt attention of the hostess, who would earnestly command you to keep eating and drinking. If you left your teacup unattended on the table it would be collected and filled again. Hospitality is very strong in Kyrgyz culture, and a big part of that hospitality is making sure your guests are satiated. It’s also considered polite to refuse something on first offer, so even though we really may not have wanted more tea or more kumis, it was the hostesses’ duty to try to force us to take it, just in case "no" really meant "yes." And since American culture makes outright confrontation as a guest very uncomfortable, we ate and drank a great deal during these “tea” stops. The generosity was overwhelming, and in general these encounters with the locals really allow you to gain a deeper understanding of both the culture and life in the mountains.

  SRAS students playing cards with the locals.

After tea, we might play a game of Durak, a Russian card game that is well-loved in Kyrgyzstan, or we’d get back on our horses. If you have never ridden a horse, you may not know that they can be somewhat difficult to mount. Watching us mount could be somewhat amusing to our hosts who had typically been riding donkeys/horses on their own since the age of four. A number of us had only been on a horse 1-2 times before the mountain trek – luckily we had a bit of training before departure. Our horse-handling (and horse-reading) skills improved remarkably over the course of the trek.

After this second breakfast with our hosts, we’d start off again, ride a few more hours, and then stop for lunch and an afternoon nap. Because it got very cold at night – it was either below freezing or very close to it every night – and because we were sleeping on the ground in tents with noises from the mountains we were not used to – many of us did not sleep well at night. The students on the trek found very creative ways to take their naps. I think I have about 10 photos of various positions students found to curl up into on the mountainside.

After arriving at our destination, we set up camp and then had to time to hike, sing Russian songs, or play more Durak or other games. The guides taught us to play a Kyrgyz children’s game that is similar to Duck, Duck, Goose (the Kyrgyz name of the game translates as “Scarf Laying”). Everyone sits in a circle and closes their eyes, except the person who is “it.” That person walks the perimeter of the circle saying “noch, noch, noch” (night, night, night) until he picks a person to drop the scarf behind. Once he places the scarf, he says “morning!” Everyone looks behind them to see if the scarf is there; if it’s behind you, you have to pick it up and chase the other person. Unlike Duck, Duck, Goose, you can run anywhere you want, and you can also throw the scarf at the person you’re chasing. If you catch the person or hit them with the scarf, they’re “it” again. If the person is able to sit in your spot before you can catch them or hit them with the scarf, then you’re “it.”

 Study Abroad
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At this point you might be led to assume the trek was mostly child’s play. While there was certainly ample time for leisure and play, there were a few heart-stopping moments where you wondered if this might be ‘it,’ the moment of your death. For me, a few of these moments included:

  • Crossing a river, my horse appeared to think he knew a better route than where the guide had crossed (rookie mistake – we subsequently learned to follow the guide pretty closely when we crossed rivers and streams). Girtai, my horse, seemed to have second thoughts about his choice and stood there in the water. Not wanting to sit in the water any longer, getting dizzy looking down, I prodded Girtai to continue on. He took off, lost footing on the rocks beneath and I pitched forward while he righted himself. Girtai continued calmly on while I lost the ability to speak for a few minutes.
  • The first time I tried to remove the outer shell of my winter jacket Girtai took off running with one of my arms trapped in the sleeve (this is not good for balance or hanging on). Luckily one of the guides was nearby and helped restrain my horse. Did I mention we were on a mountain?
  • At one point we were on a trail that was basically a drop-off below – without even room on the ground to hop off your horse. The non-drop-off side was basically a wall with heavy vegetation sticking out into the trail, so the horses were either scraping you through a bunch of prickly vegetation (if they were cautious), or, if like Girtai, fearlessly pushing forward on the last pieces of sand on the edge of the drop-off. Those are the times you aren’t supposed to look down. You feel very affectionate toward your horse once back on safe ground for not killing you.

And mine were actually some of the more mild moments – I never got thrown from my horse. It’s also worth mentioning that in the years since this program has run, there has not been a single serious incident that’s prevented a student from completing the trek. This can be attributed in large part to the guides that accompany the groups. It was certainly a comfort having two guides along with our small group the entire time. They were both locals with expert horse-handling skills and trained in first aid. During the trek, we had one watchful guide at the front of the group, and one keeping an eye on us from the back. If any of us were straying or doing something else inadvisable (or our horses were about to do something inadvisable, such as lay down with us onboard), we’d have the immediate attention and if necessary – lightening assistance – from our two very friendly and helpful guides.

"What did you learn while studying abroad?"
"How to milk a horse."
"Whoa, seriously?!"

We each had our individual moments, but there are other, smaller things that one just has to deal with, including, but not limited to: being on a horse for that number of hours; being in a group for most of the day and staying positive – or at least keeping quiet – when you are tired, in pain, or otherwise uncomfortable (due to rain, snow, or intense heat – we experienced all three on a regular basis – sometimes all within the course of a few minutes); dealing with a complete lack of privacy (bowel movements and other bodily functions were no secret and a regular topic of conversation); feeling dirty most of the time (only one of us was brave enough on day 5 to submerge in a lake that couldn’t have been any warmer than 45 degrees); having no communication with the outside world – we regularly discussed the possibility of a zombie take-over and that we might be returning to a very different world; having no control over your schedule and meals.

By the end of the trek, rather than being wound up by all these difficulties (like in day 1-2), you’ll find that you’ve relaxed into them and nothing could be simpler than roaming the Kyrgyz mountains with a group of individuals who have risen to the same challenge. It helps show you just what you are capable of.

The Kyrgyz Summer Adventure program, which combines three weeks of Russian language with the week long horse trek, is perfect for the adventurous student seeking to 1) improve their Russian, and 2) experience the physical and emotional challenges of a rugged trek in territory that has seen little change in centuries. If you fit that description, we welcome you to the trek.

More Photos of our Students' Adventures in Kyrgyzstan!

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